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August 29, 2019

Donald Trump: the PR King


Another morning and my radio alarm goes off. The newsreader rattles through the day’s news agenda and there it is, another Donald Trump story.

Barely a day goes by without my wake-up news bulletin referencing the US President and his latest controversy. In short, love him or loathe him, ‘The Donald’ has repeatedly shown his ability to generate headlines and ensure he finds a way in to our thoughts every single day.

As a democratically elected leader with an election on the horizon, however unagreeable this might instinctively feel, this is arguably his job.

From a PR perspective, Trump is clearly subscribing to the school of thought that your reputation is a vacuum and that unless you fill it, others will. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s renowned spokesman and media adviser, also subscribed to this ethos with Blair succinctly describing the approach in his memoir, A Journey, as “…either you attempt to feed the beast or the beast eats you.”

A stone cold loser…

For example, who can forget the tweet Trump sent moments before he arrived for a state visit to the UK earlier this year? While sounding like a petulant teenager, his description of London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in a well-timed tweet as a “stone cold loser” was always going to generate a stream of coverage.

This week saw another classic example of Trumpian PR in action, when he announced via Twitter that he was postponing a meeting with Denmark’s Prime Minister because “…she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland”. Seemingly in an effort to provide the media with even more fodder, he even tweeted an image of a glitzy Trump-branded building super-imposed onto a small-town Greenland setting accompanied with the text “I promise not to do this to Greenland!” While it might be mildly amusing and just a bit of fun, it is equally laughable that this is how a President would communicate – unless the objective is to simply garner media attention.

Cynics might even say that his overtures to North Korean dictator, Kim Jung-un, and the plentiful photo opportunities this has afforded are simply a fantastic way to dominate the headlines globally, rather than genuine attempts to bring the pariah state in from the cold.

Trump’s persistent attacks on the media, including his very public rebuke of CNN’s Jim Acosta, are also a sure-fire way to generate coverage. Little agitates and fires up journalists more than attacking their credibility and undermining their ability to do their job.

Scroll through his Twitter feed and there are many more examples of provocative outbursts that will almost certainly generate a strong response.

Much like observations of our very own Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that his buffoonery is in fact a well-honed and deliberate act, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that there is a real method to the madness underpinning Trump’s approach to communicating. To assess each tweet individually and take them at face value, belies a greater strategy. To clarify, I’m not suggesting that what he says in individual tweets should be overlooked and not subjected to scrutiny; but there must be a broader awareness of what he is trying to achieve before walking into his trap and adding oxygen to his agenda by simply screaming moral outrage.

What can others learn?

So what can businesses and organisations learn from the President’s communications strategy?

First of all, we need some perspective. Very few (if any) companies or corporate leaders can demand the attention that arguably the world’s most powerful person can.

However, there are still several principles that are applicable for the majority of entities. I would categorise these as:

1) Have an opinion. While there is always a balance to strike, companies and organisations – particularly CEOs – should have an opinion on relevant key issues and they should be prepared to espouse these. This is not about being provocative, but if you want to get cut through with media then be prepared to offer more than anodyne clichés.

2) Know your audience (detractors and supporters). Trump knows that certain buzzwords will provoke a certain response from his fans, but also his critics. By appealing and repelling in equal measure, he is effectively doubling the impact of what he says. The lesson is clear: pay close attention to those you are trying to reach and what drives them, then communicate accordingly to press their buttons.

3) Timing is key. Be prepared to act swiftly and to provide quick responses as events unfold. Better still, get ahead of events and set the agenda with proactive comments before others – again, remember Trump’s timely tweet about Sadiq Khan?

Whatever your views of Donald Trump, his approach to communications is certainly effective if the objective is to generate coverage and ultimately, public awareness. This is a one dimensional perspective with no reflection of the nuances or meaning behind what’s being said (“Build the wall!”) or their accuracy (“Fake news!”), but in today’s world of short attention spans and faces gawping at memes on phone screens, it’s often what seems to count most.

The clear caveat for the corporate world is that businesses and corporate leaders still need to ensure their messages and opinions are carefully calibrated before letting them loose on the world – and that in many circumstances solely chasing headlines can be a risky and strategically nonsensical approach.

Now, I wonder what tomorrow morning’s radio alarm will bring?